The name Sodexo doesn’t conjure up images of haute cuisine. From its slogan, “World Leader in Quality of Daily Life Solutions,” it’s hard even to tell that food service is the megacompany’s bread and butter. I can’t be blamed too much, then, for having less than lofty expectations the first time I agreed to judge Sodexo’s annual cooking contest at the University of Vermont, the Battle of the Campus Chefs.
That was last year — and I got a surprise. Instead of sloppy joes or the chipped beef known in the military as SOS, the offerings from nine teams included perfectly piped mounds of purple potato mash and competition-quality brisket.
Last Monday, as I climbed the stairs to the Dudley Davis Center’s fourth-floor Grand Maple Ballroom, I was excited to taste the chefs’ creations for the second year in a row — and I wasn’t disappointed. This year, with 11 teams and a mounting sense of competition, the contestants had raised their games even more.
The Battle of the Campus Chefs began in 2009 as UVM’s take on a corporate Iron Chef-style competition created within the Sodexo organization. Tom Oliver, at the time operations director of UVM Sodexo, decided to run the event as a fundraiser for the college’s Campus Kitchens Project, a student-run initiative that prepares locally gleaned weekly meals at the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf. He further involved students by pairing chefs from the various dining halls with teams of cooks from campus clubs.
The template hasn’t changed much since then, but, as the food entries have improved, so has outside awareness. This year, several silver-haired diners, far from student age, roamed from table to table sampling the cuisine from petite paper plates.
Nowadays, most contest judges come from outside Sodexo. This year, Rick Riani, the company’s district manager, was joined by Oliver, now vice president of operations for Rovetto Brothers International Restaurant Group, the company behind Piecasso Pizzeria & Lounge in Stowe and the Positive Pie family of restaurants. Shawn Calley, executive chef at the Essex Resort & Spa, and yours truly rounded out the panel.
After introductions from the emcee — Paul Bahan, Sodexo UVM’s stentorian director of marketing — chefs brought up their plates in flights of three.
Last year’s winner, chef Armand Lundie of the University Marché on the Athletic Campus, presented a trio of phyllo-dough purses accompanied by a pile of small but plump fiddleheads and a garnish of nonedible fresh flowers.
We dug into Lundie’s offerings. I was most impressed by the phyllo dumpling filled with Bayley Hazen Blue cheese and a sweet-and-sour counterpoint of cherries. An Asian-style china spoon placed beside the dumpling and full of honey-port sauce was a nice touch, but proved unnecessary paired with the dumpling’s already Technicolor flavors. Lundie also provided the evening’s most luxurious items: The other two purses contained seared scallops and tender Boyden Farms beef. He garnered high marks for flavor and presentation, but also for use of local ingredients.
Next, chefs from Dudley Davis’ own Marketplace racked up points for difficulty of their dish. But their ambitious homemade fettuccine broke apart into inch-long strands on the plate that Calley and I shared.
Guatemala native Oscar Morales showed off Central American flair with his tamales. A chef in the Waterman building, Morales prepared a duo made from his house-ground, steamed masa harina, both dressed in a smooth, mild salsa verde. The vegetarian tamale, stuffed with corn and beans, was full of flavor and just a hint of earthy spice. The pork one was slightly dry and not as well seasoned.
New World Tortilla’s student support club was a no-show, but chefs Izora Sandler and Donovan Parrott still made a go of it. The Grandma Club, a group of student knitting and crocheting fans helping out at a neighboring table, put their needles and hooks aside to assist New World, too. The result was more than worthy of menu space at the tortilla stand in the Davis Center. Curry tortillas made that day were filled with braised LaPlatte River Angus Farm beef in spicy sesame sauce; each mouthful popped with seeds. A colorful cabbage-and-carrot slaw moderated the heat with its slick of vinegar.
I nearly finished my taco, an imprudent move with seven dishes left to taste. This is one of my weak points as a cooking-contest judge. When I enjoy a plate of food, I attack it like the naughty vacuum cleaner on “Teletubbies.” After years of judging events ranging from peach-pie-baking contests to a competition among lab employees at Fletcher Allen Health Care, I still haven’t learned what most first-timers know: Just take a few small bites.
The team from Cook Commons made it easier for me to reserve stomach capacity by serving us just two petite bites apiece of eggplant involtini. The grilled veggie was wrapped around creamy local chèvre and topped with seasoned, oven-dried tomatoes. Pools of garlic oil added hints of sweetness and bitterness. Balsamic pearls, made with gelatin instead of hoity-toity molecular ingredients, dotted the plate like caviar. Presented on a series of small, square plates fitted on a larger square tray, the Cook Commons offering also included a pair of thoughtful lettuce salads, dressed austerely with salt, pepper and homemade bread crumbs.
One student club stood on its own, without a Sodexo chef at the helm. FeelGood serves a variety of gourmet grilled-cheese sandwiches on the lower level of the Davis Center every Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. The group excelled in its presentation of Vermont ingredients. Its Bon Fromage Crostini consisted of all-local Cyrus Pringle bread from Red Hen Baking Company, stacked with sharp Brie, greens and admittedly not-so-local mango chutney. The sweet, tangy chutney was piled so high that it ended up coating the hand with which I was eating it. Making a slob of yourself in public is one thing. Imagine eating messily while sitting at a table on a stage in front of more than 200 people.
I had high hopes for the dessert bento box from the chefs at Redstone Dining, since I’m a sucker for food that looks like other food, especially when it’s Japanese. Each bento compartment held a different mini-dessert made to resemble an Asian dish. I started with the egg roll filled with lemon-kissed, cinnamon-dusted apples. It reminded me of McDonald’s apple pies in the days when they were fried, but with a more natural flavor. I liked the banana fritters, too.
Unfortunately, the largest compartment held what proved to be an interesting misfire. “Fruit sushi” was actually just clumps of sticky rice topped with strawberries or melon. Apples sliced to resemble pickled ginger were left uncured. A hint of pickling or a slice of seaweed would have made the dish a contender, especially if the Day-Glo faux wasabi had held real spice. It turned out to be mascarpone with a hint of lime juice, sans heat.
But I satisfied my wasabi cravings with former Sakurabana chef-owner Ron Takahashi’s dish, called Harmony. His cold, soy-glazed salmon was topped with a welcome pool of wasabi cream. Takahashi’s sushi may no longer be available on Church Street, but he still makes it daily for the Marketplace at the Davis Center.
One of the last dishes impressed the judges the most. Jonathan Turner, the Southern-bred chef at Brennan’s in the Davis Center, has a special talent for barbecue. His pulled pork is legendary, and it was his brisket that nearly took the crown last year. This year, Turner prepared long plates covered with pork hush puppies and drizzled with scallion oil. Each tender pork ball was placed inside a pickled onion ring and bathed in tangy, malty barbecue sauce made with Rookie’s Root Beer. Even the Vermont Smoke and Cure bacon-dotted braised collards were full of rich, vinegared flavor.
With plate after plate presented to us, even the judges didn’t know who our winner would be until we’d tabulated our score sheets. But we were sure it was between the involtini and the hush puppies.
In the end, Turner, so close to a victory last year, prevailed. Better luck next time to second-place finisher Timothy Kingzett of Cook Commons. A recent arrival from Stowe Mountain Lodge, the chef appears to be on track to revolutionize his kitchen at UVM.
Third place went to last year’s winner, Lundie, but the big surprise was the audience winner. The crowd favorite was good old home-style turkey prepared by the chefs at the Harris-Millis Residence Halls. The local bird was moist and nearly fall-apart tender and came to the judges with two cups carved out of root vegetables and filled with gravy and barbecue sauce. I suspect it was the bite-sized root-vegetable risotto that won over the crowd, though. It reminded me of risotto Tater Tots.
In the end, the event raised $1003 for Campus Kitchens. Perhaps just as importantly, it raised awareness that the chefs serving college kids soup and omelettes day in and day out aren’t just lunch ladies. They’re true culinary professionals, keeping their knives sharp for just the right occasion.